November 22, 2022
7 minutes

Telework: "you can't duplicate what happens in one organisation to another

Founder of the Selkis consulting firm, Sarah Proust is an associate expert at the Fondation Jean Jaurès where she follows work-related issues. This year she published "Telework: the end of the office?" in which she gives her views on how the hybrid revolution should be carried out. Interview.

Telework: "you can't duplicate what happens in one organisation to another

Founder of the Selkis consultancy, Sarah Proust is an associate expert at the Fondation Jean Jaurès, for which she follows work-related issues. This year, she published Telework: the end of the office? in which she gives her ideas on how to carry out the hybrid revolution. Interview.

How should the office be transformed in practice?

It has to be made into a space that can be defrosted. The office is a fixed space, with partitions that don't move. I favour mobile spaces such as internal coworking spaces to increase transversality between teams. I believe that all the spaces within the office will become workplaces, the cafeteria and the corridors. The employee must be able to work anywhere, particularly to maximise the time spent at work, to seek co-production and the informal relationship which is essential. All these spaces must be alive, and this requires significant IT and digital equipment in the structures, so that employees can connect everywhere or have large screens in all the spaces.

"We need to stop thinking about the number of days we telework but about the days we spend in the office and what we decide to do there together!"

In your book, you stress the importance of developing a relationship of trust and autonomy with teleworking employees. How can we achieve this while resisting the distension of the work relationship inherent in teleworking?

This is necessary because telework is not a change of degree in the work relationship but a change of nature. The manager must therefore change the nature of his relationship with his employees. In my book, I ask the following question: how can we avoid diluting the collective and preventing employees from becoming "luxury freelancers"? Because with teleworking, there is a risk of seeing employees move from a sense of belonging to a service logic, like freelancers. With the organisations I work with, I stop thinking about the number of days teleworked. We need to think about the number of days spent in the office and what we decide to do there together! The office must evolve for several reasons: we must avoid the dilution of the collective, the invisibilisation of employees and the bilateralization of the managerial relationship, because it is easier to send an email directly to the employee to place an order, than to wait for a meeting, there is therefore a risk of degrading the manager-employee relationship and impoverishing the content which is not enriched by the collective channel of the meeting.

"Companies are looking for a common model. But you can't duplicate what happens in one organisation to another! "

You support the idea of a distinction of tasks between the office and telework, with work meetings, group work, socialising in the office and more productive and reflective activities at home or at a distance.

Even if we adopt a hybrid model, we can also imagine a distinction between office and teleworking tasks: the two days when I have to work and produce my note, I would be better off at home. On the other hand, on the days when I have to meet with colleagues and exchange ideas, I would be better off in the office.

Furthermore, the organisation of work depends on each structure and each strategy, you don't work the same way in an insurance company or a public service. Organisations have to adapt to what they are. It is very difficult because they are all looking for a common model. Basically you can't duplicate what happens in one organisation to another.

Companies also make it sacred to decide on a common day at the office each week, they artificialise the need for the collective! It's too tight a rhythm, we make a day sacred that we don't know what to do with. I think it's more useful to deal with this on a monthly basis and not on a weekly basis.

Why is it important to develop the possibility for employees to work in third places?

During the crisis, we discovered that the office was a - relatively - egalitarian place. Even if that's not how it's generally perceived, we see it as a place of social segmentation with the boss on the top floor in his big office (...) I think it's the opposite. We have the same tools, the same collective catering, we work from the same place. Work is much more egalitarian than telework, since the latter is based on the individual conditions of each person. Hence the importance of third places that allow people to telework outside the home, without suffering the inequality of having a small flat, for example.

In your book, you tell us that almost 18 million people in France work in offices. Why is this new information so important?

Firstly, because we had no data on office workers before our survey (conducted with ifop). 60% of employees are office workers, which means that the workforce is primarily tertiary. In relation to the active population, this represents 18 million people. When we talk about the reorganisation of work, from a managerial, digital or space point of view, this means that we are talking about a very important part of the working population!

You point out the risks of widespread unregulated telework. Please explain.

The first risk concerns the outsourcing of support functions. These are the professions that earn the lowest salaries and are the furthest from the heart of the metropolis and therefore from the head offices; they have the most interest in opting for teleworking. At a distance, there is a risk that these professions will be made invisible and therefore outsourced. The second risk I point out concerns middle managers who could become luxury freelancers by being less and less at work. During my interviews with many 100% teleworking employees, they all told me that they were not distancing themselves from their mission or their work but from the company, the organisation. The final risk is that the office becomes a place of power, of the elite, where leaders are seen and strategy is decided, a place where the logic of commonality is broken down into a place of social segmentation. After the period of fragmentation of the workplace, we would be facing its atomisation.

What do you think of the relocation of support functions outside France, a scenario feared in particular by the head of ANDRH?

I think he is right. The support functions were the ones that before covid teleworked the least. They were thought to be associated with the office: an executive assistant, we imagine her attached to the director, because she answers the phone... The pandemic has shown that these are the most easily teleworkable tasks! So why not have employees who live far away work, as a way of optimising costs? There is a social risk for these jobs, it is not an imminent risk, but we must keep it in mind because it is a very strong issue.

Cost optimisation means flex-office. This type of work organisation has a bad press in France. What do you think about it? How can it be properly implemented within structures?

I'm not dogmatic on the subject, I don't think it's good or bad. I think it's a way of organising spaces and not work, which may or may not correspond to a structure. I have accompanied organisations in which some departments have gone to flex and others have kept individual offices. Flex must correspond to the work organisation of the structure or department. If we want to implement it in good conditions, each employee must have a place to work. This does not mean that they have their own office with their mug and family photos, but they must have a place where they are expected. They must also have a symbolic reference point, such as a locker for example.

"We do a lot of informality on the phone that we don't do at all on video."

You point to the zooming aperitifs or the compulsory video coffee break imposed by some organisations to maintain informal links, which are known to be fundamental in companies. So how do you do this in telework?

You can't formalise the informal, it's spontaneous. You can't decide on an informal time or place. It is in the process of finding a new way of existing, for example we do a lot of informal work by telephone, which we don't do at all by video. The office obviously allows informality to exist, in the company restaurant, in the corridors... That's why I think we need to think about the number of days spent together at work, rather than the number of teleworking days per week.

You have been researching telework practices in our European neighbours. What struck you most?

Those who were less used to telework are inventing the most interesting models. Spain is profoundly changing its relationship to work, both by thinking about telework in a collective way, but also by launching an experiment on the 4-day week. This is a country that had less than 5% of teleworkers before the pandemic. Today it has seized the opportunity to think globally about the future of work. Basically, those who were not used to telework are getting ahead of themselves in terms of work innovations.

Edmée Citroën

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